Out of all the complaints I’ve heard since starting this blog, trying to please different palates with one meal reigns at the top. This frustration is echoed by one reader:
I love different foods than the rest of my family. For example, I love pasta, the rest of the family hates it. I love seafood, rest of the family hates it! I end up making two different meals, one for me and something different for the rest! Expensive.
The real secret to making everyone happy with meal offerings is giving up on the dream of pleasing everyone 100% of the time. Let me show you what I mean…
1. Give everyone’s favorite a turn
Jane complained that her daughter, Emma, barely ate dinner. She had Emma try everything but she usually gagged and would want to leave at the table after doing her duty. When I asked her if there was any food at the table that Emma liked, she admitted she never thought of that.
While catering to a child is never a good idea, you still want to honor their food preferences and bring them into the decision process. Let family members know that everyone will get a favorite and have each person provide input on weekly meal plans.
“I like to include kids in the menu planning process really young,” says Joan Medlen, RD. “Sure, I get to control what the options are, but the process of choosing within my parameters brings an amazing amount of ownership and changes the entire dynamic.”
2. Let kids know about the yet factor
The difference with young children’s preferences is they are still developing and changing. So if a child declares they don’t like something, let them know they don’t like it “yet.” After all, their taste buds are growing up and will continue to change.
So don’t be too quick to nix a new meal your kids turn their nose up to — they just might need more time and exposure to warm up to it. When serving uncertain meals, have something at the meal little ones are likely to eat.
3. Try serving meals family style
I’ve written about family style meals before — providing food in bowls and allowing kids to serve themselves. This is especially helpful when dealing with a variety of food preferences and food allergies. In this WebMD post, dietitian David Grotto shows how he keeps his vegetarian daughters happy at meals with this approach.
Remember that children under 6 tend not to like their food mixed, so separating out the different parts of the meal (pasta, vegetable, chicken) can help. Big A (5 years old) has just started eating whole sandwiches. For the past 3 years, she would eat the bread, cheese, and meat separately. Developmentally, young children have a need to have things “just right” (e.g., different foods not touching) which dissipates as they get older.
4. Utilize familiar themes
Providing familiar foods and sauces can help with new food acceptance, according to research. Our most frequent theme nights are Mexican and Italian. Little D just ate shrimp for the first time because it was wrapped in a burrito with guacamole, beans and cheese (other foods he loves).
5. Take the pressure off eating performance
The stress of dinner usually has to do with parents’ expectations and ineffective attempts to control how and what kids eat. Try not to leave nutritious food offerings for the last meal of the day (protein and veggies). Instead, offer a good variety all day and take the pressure off of what kids eat for dinner. Enjoyment and a relaxed environment usually precede good eating.
6. Keep looking for jackpot meals
I have to admit that finding a meal everyone loves is an awesome feeling. We are slowly building these meals and I’m continually looking out for new recipes that everyone might fancy. Amy, who understands the frustration of feeding a preschooler, makes a great point:
I just need to remember to keep rotating in a good variety. For example, while my daughter used to love broccoli, it’s no longer a favorite. Cauliflower, on the other hand, is suddenly the preferred vegetable. So it requires more flexibility on my part and willingness to try new recipes and preparation methods multiple times to see what appeals to us as a family, not just to the tastes of my husband and myself.
There are no easy fixes to making everyone happy at mealtime. But it’s worth the time and energy to make this ritual enjoyable for all.
What do you do to please everyone at dinnertime? Or are you still faced with insurmountable challenges?
Check out Maryann’s book for a step-by-step approach to creating a rotation of family meals: The Family Dinner Solution